The Mount St. Joseph second eight is seen at the top of this photo, and the crew also ended up atop the podium at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta last Saturday, winning the gold medal by almost a boat-length. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Last weekend, Mount St. Joseph Academy’s final race at the 2013 Stotesbury Cup Regatta yielded the best result. The Magic’s second eight had taken the silver medal behind Holy Spirit High School at the Philadelphia City Championships two weekends earlier, but last Saturday at Stotesbury the Mount “Two-Vee” claimed the gold medal, winning by some two-and-a-half seconds over James Madison High School of Vienna, Va.

Spirit did not reach the final at Stotesbury; the Mount and New Jersey’s Absegami High School (fourth overall) were the only “Cities” finalists to make it. After qualifying third in the Friday morning head races, the MSJ boat [Alyssa Pagliaro (cox), Emily Ruddy (stroke), Maddie Wescott, Gwyn Kieffer, Fiona Kelly, Danielle Kosman, Jacqueline James, Marissa Mulligan, Rachel Heller] won its semifinal with the fastest time overall.

Senior bow-seat rower Heller, a Norwood Fontbonne Academy graduate, can now head off to St. Joseph’s University with a Stotesbury gold medal.

She related, “The girls in our boat have been together a long time, and it helps when you all get along and you all have each others’ backs. Then when you win as a team, it’s an amazing feeling. Half our boat had never stood on that medal dock before, so being up there and having our whole school singing the Alma Mater was unbelievable.”

The other two MSJ crews to reach the finals last weekend earned silver medals. The freshman eight [Lindsey Maiale (cox), Demi Simms (stroke), Christina Knox, Olivia Tice-Carroll, Maddie Lauinger, Julianna Hunt, Maddie Carlton, Katelin Cordero, Zoe Ramos] came in behind a skilled, more experienced group from Saratoga (N.Y.) High School, and the only other Philadelphia-area finalist, Merion Mercy Academy, finished sixth.

Holy Spirit continued to reign in the lightweight eight class, but the Mount St. Joe lights [Annie Tenzinger (cox), Emily McHugh, Liz McKernan, Maura O’Donnell, Bridget Fitzpatrick, Kate Mirabella, Josie Marrocco, Lexi Meister, Abby Shreero] won a three-way battle for second place over Merion and Winter Park (Fla.) High School.

The Mount’s senior (or varsity) eight [Mary Raggazino (cox), Maddie Lawn (stroke), Natalie Simms, Steph Eble, Kierra McCloy, Lauren Matchett, Kait Loftus, Michela Karrash, Leah Ramos] faced a tough draw in one of the three semifinals in its class. In each race, only the top two reached the finals, and the Magic finished third by eight-tenths of a second.

The Mount started out with eight entries at Stotesbury, but its three fours were waylaid in the qualifying round on Friday, where only the top 18 finishers moved into the semifinals in each category.

The junior four [Bridget Walsh (cox), Bernadette McGirr (stroke), Shannon Hughes, Nina Lawlor, Katie Gresko] placed 26th out of 59 boats overall, the lightweight four [Madi Kist (cox), Emma Tenzinger (stroke), Lauren Woodrow, Sophia Cocozza, Ellie McGlynn] was 25th of 38 entries, and the senior four [Victoria Porretti (cox), Kate Stromberg (stroke), Hanna Leonard, Natalie Keane, Alana Cianciulli] came in 23rd in a field of 46.

Mount St. Joseph’s junior eight [Megan Mirabella (cox), Caroline Carbone (stroke), Quinn Devore, Jocelyn Ziemniak, Jenny DiPietro, Christina Vosbikian, Alaina Hunt, Brynn McGillin, Ariene Merkle] qualified 11th out of 46 boats that were entered, making the cut for semifinals with room to spare. However, this was another event in which only the top two semifinalists went on to the medal round, and early on Saturday morning the Magic ended up one spot below the cut-off line, third in their race.

For the lightweight eight, the progression through the regatta was expedited by the fact that only 11 boats signed up at the outset. The semifinal stage was eliminated, with the top six head-race qualifiers moving directly into the finals. Mount St. Joe advanced by putting up the fourth-fastest time behind Holy Spirit (which won Stotes in 2011 and 2012, and Scholastic Nationals last year), Merion Mercy, and Winter Park.

Two returning members of the 2012 lightweight crew moved into the varsity eight this year, and it took some time for the remaining slenderettes to get their bearings. In one early regular-season race, the Magic finished a full 15 seconds behind Spirit, but in the Stotesbury final they crossed the line a respectable four seconds behind the strong Jersey Shore school (5:04.01 to 5:08.00), fending off Merion (5:09.53) and Winter Park (5:09.88) in the process.

“From where they started this season, they’ve made a lot of progress and it was a very good outcome,” said Mount varsity crews coach Mike McKenna.

McKenna’s counterpart with the youngest Mount rowers, first-year freshman/novices coach Jen Fasy, has enjoyed a remarkable rookie season.

At the City Championships, where there were more races for beginning rowers than Stotesbury, gold medals were won by the freshman eight, freshman four, and the novice eight “A” boat, with a second novice boat missing the finals by one place.

“I was so lucky in getting a great group of kids,” Fasy observed. “It’s a big class both in terms of overall numbers (33) and of height. We gave them tough workouts, and they worked very hard on and off the water, and that laid the foundation for their success.

“They’re very supportive of one another,” she continued. “There’s a great team atmosphere, which is one of the things I’m proudest of this season.”

The MSJ frosh qualified second behind Saratoga, whose boat contains a number of girls who began rowing on club crews while in middle school. The Magic actually turned in a faster time than the New Yorkers as they each won separate semifinals, but in the end Saratoga’s skill won out over the Magic’s muscle. However, as the old adage goes, “you can’t coach size,” and in that regard the Mount ninth-graders are an imposing bunch.

Saratoga won the final race in 5:12.49, while the Magic were second in 5:18.30, ahead of Virginia’s T.C. Williams (5:20.26) and fourth-place Holy Spirit (5:22.63).

The second eight is always a sentimental favorite, usually being composed of athletes who have dedicated four years of hard labor to the program but who have rarely enjoyed the limelight that tends to focus on vessels like the varsity and lightweight eights. After a solid spring overall, this group of veterans (all seniors except Kosman, a sophomore) put it all together for Stotesbury.

In the two weeks following the City Championships, Heller revealed, “We just all worked really hard, because we didn’t want to get second again. This was the last time at Stotesbury for almost all of us.”

About half-an-hour before the second eight final got underway, the leaden skies over the Schuylkill opened up.

“It was pouring down rain at the starting line, but we were all really confident,” recounted Heller, adding that their coxswain, Alyssa Pagliaro, helped keep the rowers calm as they waited for the race to begin. “Coming under the [Strawberry Mansion] bridge we were third, and then Alyssa just told us it was time for us to go. Going past the Prep boathouse [about a third of the way down the 1500-meter course] we had first, and we never let go of it.”

The Magic seized the gold medal with a winning time of 5:08.94, and were followed across the line by James Madison (5:11.37) and another Virginia crew, Walt Whitman (5:16.22).

This was actually Mount St. Joe’s first calamity-free gold-medal performance at Stotesbury since 2010. In 2011, the Magic didn’t win any events at Stotes. Last spring the powerful varsity eight earned a gold medal, but seconds after they finished the distracted celebrants scraped the bow of their boat against the Columbia Bridge.

That glitch aside, the 2012 varsity eight was a loaded crew whose eight graduating members were all recruited to Division I college programs. The members of an almost entirely new 2013 line-up had neither the experience nor the physical power of their predecessors, but displayed a good deal of grit and determination this season.

The favorites last weekend were the Virginians from James Madison, who appeared on the Schuylkill during the regular season and won handily.

They qualified first on Friday and the Mount was fourth, but although they didn’t have to face the Warhawks in the semifinals, the Magic still had formidable rivals in Holy Spirit and National Cathedral Prep. Mount St. Joe had gone back and forth with Spirit during the spring, but the Spartans had won the City Championships convincingly, and the Magic had lost to National Cathedral back in April at a regatta in Delaware.

In the Mount’s Stotesbury semifinal, Coach McKenna related, “Off the start, we dropped about a length on the lead crews in the first 30-40 strokes of the race. I think they were a little too amped-up, and they were a little out of control. Once they settled down, they were fine. They rowed through most of the field, but they couldn’t quite get where they needed to be.”

In their race, the third-place Magic were just 0.78 seconds shy of the last boat to advance, and their time of 5:11.31 was faster than that of both finalists from the previous heat, Archbishop Carroll (5:13.01) and Walt Whitman (5:14.65). James Madison won the final in 4:52.44, followed by National Cathedral (4:59.78), Walt Whitman (5:00.45), Spirit (5:01.38), Carroll (5:01.65), Bethesda Chevy Chase (5:03.06).

“The kids had a good row; they just got beat by better crews today,” said the Mount’s McKenna, his overall tone revealing that he’s proud of how this group performed under difficult circumstances this spring.

What will they need to do at the upcoming scholastic national regatta?

“Calm down,” the veteran skipper said succinctly. “They just need to be more composed at the start of the race, that’s all.”